Meet MMM: Trish Biers — Mors Mortis Museum

More about Mors Mortis Museum this week! Read more about my amazing co-conspirator in all things death, museums, and human remains – Dr. Trish Biers!

I remember the night so vividly, my father and I stood behind a burgundy velvet rope waiting to go into the cinema. I didn’t know what to expect, it was quite a grown-up movie for me and the excitement around opening night was a big deal for a little girl. Seeing Raiders of the Lost […]

via Meet MMM: Trish Biers — Mors Mortis Museum

Meet MMM: Katie Clary — Mors Mortis Museum

Hey, it’s me! Read more about my work with Trish Biers and Mors Mortis Museum here. How did I get into death studies? What are my research goals? Maybe this blog will answer some of those questions. MMM has some great things coming up, and we are excited to get together again in the UK this fall at the Association for Death and Society conference at University of Bath.

This post introduces MMM co-founder Dr. Katie Clary and her entry into death studies as a museum professional. Be on the lookout for more blogs from Dr. Clary and Dr. Biers this summer! In 2015 I was on the job market after leaving a position of Executive Director of a Historic House Museum in Tennessee, USA. […]

via Meet MMM: Katie Clary — Mors Mortis Museum

Leicester and Richard III

Saturday began our last full day in England, and we caught the train to Leicester on the way back to London so I could see my favorite monarch of English/British history: Richard III. If you follow my Instagram you may have seen my epic r3 Halloween costume, and if you’re on Twitter, you’ll know fake r3chard has retweeted me like 3 times now. We’re basically best internet friends.

Mom and I got into Leicester and decided to try to find a place to leave our luggage. If anyone is looking for a lucrative business to open: start a found luggage in Leicester. We carried our giant bags all over the town with no luck. The Visitors Center couldn’t help us; the museum couldn’t store bags for insurance reasons (fair). We had already bought our tickets, I was tired and hangry, and nothing was going our way. My mom, saint that she is, decided to hole up in a café with tea and cake and babysit our bags while I went to the museum. Not ideal, but at least I got to see what there was to see.

The Richard III Visitor Center is built around the archaeological site where in 2012, archaeologists found the remains of the last Plantagenet. The archaeological story itself is fascinating, because it is not at all usual for an archaeological investigation to find exactly what it is looking for on the first try; but that’s just what happened in this case. There is a Smithsonian documentary all about the discovery available on YouTube here.

The visitor begins in a display about the history of the War of the Roses, family lines, and the reasons for the turmoil that surrounded Richard III’s reign. From there, you travel through the War of the Roses, RIII’s short reign, and his burial at Grey Friar’s Priory. Heading upstairs, visitors encounter a display that discusses the portrayals of Richard as a villain throughout popular culture, from Shakespeare to the recent Benedict Cumberbatch portrayal.

Next, the display walks the visitor through the entire story of the dig from its beginning through to the discovery and analysis of the Richard’s remains. This was great! The timeline included artifacts from the dig, video interviews with the archaeologists and others involved in the venture, and diagrams. The exhibit then represents scientists’ analysis of Richard’s bones through medical testing and forensic recreations. One controversy was that of Richard’s scoliosis; many proponents of R3 have relegated the story of the hunchback king to a tale made up by Shakespeare and other detractors to vilify and lessen the monarch in some way.  When the skeleton was uncovered, it was obvious that the scoliosis was a fact after all.

The visitor center experience ends with a visit to the site where the bones were found in the parking lot that used to house the church. The websitedescribes it as, “the site of King Richard’s burial, preserved in a quiet, respectful setting and with a contemplative atmosphere, fitting for the last resting place of a slain warrior and anointed monarch.” The room is quiet and simple, and a hologram shows where the bones were found within the unit. The volunteer in the room when I visited was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, pointing out features in the dig that helped to date the remains.

Across the courtyard from the visitor center stand Leicester Cathedral, where the remains of Richard are interred. The church also has a display about Richard and his discovery and subsequent reburial (and a giftshop, too!).

Behind the church another gem is hidden: The Guildhouse. This is a medieval timbered building dating back to 1390 in its oldest part. The architecture and features throughout are gorgeous, from the soaring timbered ceiling to the mantels to the upstairs library. The site is also supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Britain, as the helpful museum employee told me as I walked through the building on my own. I managed to scare myself nearly to death when I looked into an old jail cell and saw a mannequin in the darkness.

Through hordes of football fans on their way to a match, we made our way back to the train station and headed back to London, content with our few days in Yorkshire and our day in Leciester. We were back to London for one more night, a classy McDonald’s dinner, and a trip to the Sainsbury for a literal duffel bag full of candies and presents (yet I still managed to forget a can of treacle). Mom and I made it back to South Carolina with no issues, and are already planning our next trip together!

DaCNet 2: Day 2

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Day 2 opened with, “Corpses in Cabinets,” my own panel, which included fantastic women scholars from around the world, but also FROM MY HOME STATE!

Imagine my surprise when I realized the first speaker, Melissa Schrift, was from East Tennessee State University, 2 hours from my hometown. How cool to travel all the way to England to meet someone from home who is doing super cool, and in some ways similar work, to my own. Melissa spoke on, “Race, bodies and spectacle in 19th century living exhibitions,” which was super exciting for me, since a large part of my dissertation and previous work was on freakshows and exhibitions of people with disabilities or difference. One of her case studies was that of Charles Byrne, “The Irish Giant,” whose body is still on display and causing controversy at the Hunterian in London. I spoke next on human remains in museums, then Jenny Bergman and Kicki Eldh presented “Death –a concern?” about human remains in Swedish museums.

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Last, but certainly not least, curators Katherine Baxter and Ruth Martin from Leeds Museums and Galleries presented, “Displaying the dead: public reactions to human skeletons in museums.” I loved this one! They shared the museum’s human remains policy as well as photography policies. Leeds Museums have also integrated these big questions of museums displaying and photographing the dead into their exhibitions to involve the museum stakeholders and visitors in the process. Note to self: I have GOT to get myself to the Leeds Museums and want to chat more with Katherine and Ruth on their work.

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I am not exaggerating when I say this conference was basically made for me. The next session I attended was “Bodies on View,” which included a paper on TLC and other television programming (which I’ve written about before as the modern freakshow) and reliquaries and “bone churches.” First up, Agata Korecka tackled “Death, dying and light entertainment” through medical reality television. Shows in the UK like Embarassing Bodies, or US-based shows like My 600 Pound Life, and a variety of other programs depict people with medical issues for entertainment or education. Sometimes, the subjects of those shows die, such as in the case of Robert Buchel, who died soon after filming. Korecka examined public reactions to the show during the airing, and then after the announcement of his death during the program. Kelsey Perreault ended the session with, “The Church of Bones and the human rights of the dead.” She explored a church in that displays the bones of various individuals in patterns across the chapel, and the treatment of these bones as a dark tourist destination. One audience question was about the gift shop offerings and commodification of the dead. Perreault also addressed questions about “protecting the dignity of the dead.” So good!!

20180907_161715My last session of the day was “Digital Reimaginings” with Kelly Richards and Matt Coward. Kelly did an amazing job discussing “Reimagining the personification of Death in popular culture” with a talk that included comics, movies, and other popular culture and their depictions of death. Her multimedia presentation included some fantastic video clips (Bill and Ted! Mighty Boosh!!) and she even finished the session with a great rebuttal of some quite strange questions.. Wonderful job, Kelly! Matt ended the conference with a bang, discussing death and video games. I learned about some new games I want to play (Graveyard Keeper!) and now have a different perspective of seeing death spaces in video games, as well (not cool to ransack graves, God of War).

And just like that, DaCNet 2 was done. I hope to see a lot of the same folks at the14th International Conference on the Social Context of Death, Dying and Disposal in Bath next year. Until then…

DaCNet 2: Day 1

img_8ac6ph.jpgAfter such a great night at the pub with the DaCNet people, I was excited to head over to University of York the next morning for the conference. I had a beautiful one mile walk through allotments and a park before coming to campus. My only complaint about this conference, and I’m not sure how it could be fixed, is that there were so many great papers in each session. I wanted to try to hop from room to room for different papers in different sessions, but rooms were always packed (yay!) and it wasn’t really feasible. That said here are some highlights from Day 1;

20180906_115908.jpgHeather Conway and Ruth Penfold-Mounce, “The evil dead: the law and disposing of the criminal corpse.” – Wow. Something I had never given much thought, but now I can’t stop thinking about it! Who cares for the criminal dead, such as Ian Brady or the Manchester concert bomber? The morgue that took their remains has been dubbed “Monster Morgue.”  Similar to this talk was, “(Dis)posing of monsters: justice and the ‘inhuman’ dead” by Daniel Robins and Rosie Smith. I’m still thinking through these issues and trying to decide what rights the dead have, and if those supersede those of the living. Best example: Ian Brady (who murdered children and buried them on the moors) wanted his ashes spread across those same moors; he was denied and instead his ashes were buried at sea, at night, and in secret. So thought-provoking!

tess-margollesAnother one that has really stuck with me: Julia Banwell’s, “Echoes of the absent: Teresa Margolles’ work with afterlives of bodies, objects and spaces.” Art and the dead. Artist Teresa Margolles has some great work addressing. Some of her best-known work is the details of murder victims of the cartels on marquees in Mexican towns and cities. The only thing I learned in this conference that truly bothered me was the piece, En El Aire (In the Air) (2003) which was a room filled with water vapor… from the water used to wash corpses at a morgue. Read more about her work here.

In the afternoon, I attended Claire Wood’s “Ordering meaning in the Victorian memorial card” which looked in depth at these wonderful primary sources used to commemorate the dead. They are beautiful pieces of art, too! Last, Helen Frisby presented on, “Representing gravediggers in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture” which included some great references to popular culture gravediggers.

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Our evening concluded with a keynote address from Joanna Burke titled, “Carved into the body: forensic science, truth, and the female corpse.” Professor Burke talked about the gendered nature of death and forensics through the story of one of the early forensic mannequins used for training in England. From there, we were treated to a reception and dinner, which included a book launch and celebration by Emerald Publishing’s Death Studies series. Congrats to the new authors! I walked back to the guesthouse, excited for day 2 of DacNet and my own presentation in the morning…

Café In the Crypt and The Roman Dead @ Museum of London: Docklands

IMG_20180904_133032_729From the British Museum, mom and I headed back to Trafalgar Square to finally visit the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin’s in the Field. I previously visited the café on my New Years trip to London and loved it. The café is located, as the name implies, in the old crypt of the church. The space and all of its associations truly deserve a blog all their own on death tourism and dark histories. Tables are located on top of grave stones and the crypt is surrounded by memento mori and memorial stones. Income from the café helps fund preservation and outreach programs at the church. When I told my students about this café, they were horrified at the thought of eating on graves and saw it as disrespectful, yet they were all about some ghost tours… as I said, lots more for another blog. All in all, the cafe made a mean scone and pot of tea, and the cakes looked to die for (lol see what I did there?).20180904_151621

We ubered on over to the East Side of London, which I was visiting for the first time, to the Museum of London: Docklands to see the Roman Dead exhibit that I had been looking forward to for months. The museum is located in the industrialized docks of the East End on Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. The landscape is an interesting mix of industrial, commercial, and new sleek business buildings along the high-tech docks.  As a huge fan of Call the Midwife, set in this area of London, it was a bit shocking to see modern Poplar compared to 1950s and 1960s Poplar of the TV show.

DSC03390~2Our welcome at the museum was superb, and the FOH staff member we spoke with was a graduate of UNC, just a few hours from home; small world! We first went to see the Roman Dead exhibit before exploring the rest of this excellent museum. According to their website,  “Last year, a Roman sarcophagus was found near to Harper Road in Southwark. What does this unique find tells us about the ancient city that 8 million people now call home? We’ve displayed the sarcophagus alongside the skeletons and cremated remains of 28 Roman Londoners found during archaeological excavations of ancient cemeteries. The exhibition also features over 200 objects from burials in Roman London, exploring how people dealt with death in Londinium. Many items were brought here from across the Empire, showing the extent of London’s international connections, even at this early time in its history.”DSC03401~2

The exhibit also, “uses these grave goods and the results of scientific analysis of ancient Londoners’ skeletons to explore who Roman Londoners were, and show the surprising diversity of the ancient city.”One of the coolest aspects is an online interactive display available here: “Take a closer look at the exhibition’s most fascinating objects by exploring our interactive display.”

DSC03405~2I loved this exhibit. From the warning at the beginning about he display of human remains, to the treatment and interpretation of remains and funerary objects including cremated remains, full skeletons, childrens’ remains, and even animal and pet remains.

One of the best parts was the diversity (sex , age, and race/ethnicity) of these skeletons, all found in London from the Roman periods of history.   The museum did a great job of connecting the diverse history of London to its current status as one of the most diverse cities in Europe. Additionally, the connection between people 2000 years ago to modern people was presented with ease; people cared about their pets as family members, were sometimes buried with treasured belongings, and worried about the afterlife and what comes next, in many of the same ways that people do today.

DSC03393~2Soft lighting, quiet space, and layout of the exhibit seemed respectful and somber as was fitting for a room full of human remains. The interpretation of these people and their funerary objects, as well as the context of Roman Britain was explained well through text panels and multimedia displays. While I was in the exhibit, several families with children came through, and the children all seemed very engaged by the video, and also the remains themselves.

There were interactives, multimedia, opportunities to find more information, and all the things that make a modern museum exhibit great. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I’m only sad to report that it closed in October of 2018.

DSC03411After some time spent with the dead Romans, I had some time to visit the rest of the Docklands museum to learn the history of the area and people of the East End. This museum is awesome. Not only is it housed in a historic building that shows the connection of the location to industry and the local communities, but they have some very progressive interpretation (especially on colonialism and a surprisingly critical view of the UK’s role in the slave trade) and great interactive opportunities.

20180904_155650One of my favorite parts was the hamster-wheel like recreation of a pulley system from ye olde dockland days (see the photo my mom captured here), and the recreation of a London dock street, “Sailortown” was way too much fun. There were also myriad opportunities for children to play and learn throughout the museum from dress-up corners, to a mining set-up, and interactive recreated living spaces from throughout the decades. I started to get museum fatigue towards the end of our visit, but I really plan to make it back here for another visit on my next trip to London (and the regular Museum of London, too!). From the museum, mom and I headed back to Covent Garden where we ended the night with the traditional cheeky Nandos chicken and British television.

Next: Platform 9 ¾, York, York’s Chocolate Story, and more!

Death and Culture Network II: Fall 2018

DacNet UOY RHAlignIn September of this year I had the opportunity to present a paper on Bodies and Display for the Death and Culture II conference at the University of York in the United Kingdom. I have been researching bodies and museums for the past couple of years, and this was a fantastic opportunity to bring that research to an international audience. While in the UK, I also visited several London and York museums, met with other amazing #DeathStudies scholars, and did some good research for what will be my next book! More on that soon.

IMG_mh7wdbAccording to the DaCNet website, “The Death and Culture Network based at the University of York seeks to explore and understand cultural responses to mortality. It focuses on the impact of death and the dead on culture, and the way in which they have shaped human behaviour, evidenced through thought, action, production and expression. The network is committed to promoting and producing an inter-disciplinary study of mortality supported by evidence and framed by theoretical engagement.” This is a true interdisciplinary work of genius, and a fun group of people to meet and collaborate with for sure.

I can not emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this conference and the other presentations and discussions held formally and informally. I will explore those in my next blog in more detail.

IMG_20180907_102201_205In my presentation I explored the legacy of freakshows and cabinets of curiosities on the current guidelines and ethics of museums in regard to the display of human remains. Topics I am brought up included: ethics, public reactions, and responsibilities of public historians with regards to the display and exhibition of human remains. I also presented on the racial, ableist, and class implications of displaying human remains in natural history, history, and medical museums. I also mentioned cultural patrimony of objects, as well as human remains as museum objects. I posed many questions in my talk about how old do human remains have to be to be considered “objects” and no longer people? How do visitors react to various human remains on display, from mummies, to Victorian hair wreath memorials, to skeletons or cremated remains? Human remains have been a part of exhibitions since the first museums opened in various forms; from the case of Sarah Baartman and nineteenth century freak shows, to modern displays of mummies and medical specimens, the human body has often been a source of emotion, intrigue, and education. Have museums moved beyond the “freakshow,” or are current human remain displays merely an extension of the spectacle of the earliest museum?20180907_141938~2

I had a blast doing this presentation, and I even managed to finish my talk with 4 seconds to spare. The audience and other panel members were so accepting and helpful, and they brought so many insights to my talk. I can’t wait to be back in York in 2020 for DaCIII!